Turkey: ‘The absence of rules is the fundamental character of the regime’

First published at International Viewpoint.

Erdoğan’s Turkey is seeking to carve out a path between the Western bloc and the West in order to build a second-rate imperialism. This is not without difficulty in the context of exacerbated contradictions between the great powers. 

Masis Kürkçügil is a historian and one of the founders of the Trotskyist movement in Turkey. The current linked to the Fourth International from 1978 later took the name of Sosyalist Demokrasi için Yeniyol (New Course for a Socialist Democracy). This current now forms part of the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP). This interview with Kürkçügil was conduicted by B. A. Özden and Uraz Aydin.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s fiery statements condemning Israel seem courageous inside the country and perhaps in part of the non-Western world, but Turkey’s trade relations with Israel tell a different story. These bilateral trade relations, steadily strengthened in recent years, have continued since the 7 October offensive. Moreover, we know that companies within Erdoğan’s patronage network profit greatly from this trade. How do you explain this contradiction?

Traditionally, relations between Turkey and Israel have remained stable despite changing public discourse. Turkey has had a particular trajectory when it comes to Israel. It was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel when it was founded in 1948. As a non-Arab but Muslim country that can be an economic interlocutor, Turkey is important to Israel. During the Cold War, Israel and Turkey were two major allies of the United States in the region. Ankara was heavily dependent on Israel in lobbying activities in the United States because of the Armenian genocide. Moreover, during Azerbaijan’s attack on Armenia in 2022, Israel made a significant military contribution. While the Arab countries are not in a position to compete with these two states in the region, Iran is a state that they must consider at various levels.

Moreover, before Hamas’ action on 7 October shook the world, Turkey had begun to normalize its relations with Egypt and Israel, in parallel with the appeasement initiated by the Abraham Accords between Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. Meanwhile, the Gulf countries have called on Syria to join the Arab League. Although there are no concrete plans yet, the mention at the last G20 meeting of an alternative to China’s trade routes, namely a US-backed Asia-Europe route through Israel from India, hinted at possible “stability” in the region. However, Palestine’s destiny already seems to be mapped out in this quest for stability, and the Hamas attack and the Israeli offensive in Gaza do not seem to alter the long-term goals of the states.

Relations between Turkey and Israel have also been plagued by a series of problems. Notably, at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009, Erdoğan attracted attention by shouting “one minute” during a debate in tribute to Israeli President Shimon Peres, abandoning all diplomatic conventions and declaring: “You know very well how to kill people.” This earned him recognition as a mujahid in the domestic political scene. However, a year later, in May 2010, diplomatic relations were severed after the Mavi Marmara ship attempted to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip and the death of nine people as a result of the assault on it by Israeli soldiers.

Relations began to heal two years later when Israel apologized and agreed to pay $20 million in compensation for the Mavi Marmara incident. Although Erdoğan did not react during the large protests that followed the assault on the ship, in 2016 he criticized those who questioned the restoration of relations, saying, “Did you ask me before you sent this aid there?”

Despite Erdoğan’s harsh criticism during the 2017 Jerusalem crisis and other tense incidents, relations began to normalize in 2022 with the first visit of an Israeli president to Turkey since 2014, Isaac Herzog, and the appointment of ambassadors a few months later. Discussions have also begun on the transfer of energy resources from Israel to Europe. However, it should be noted that the volume of natural gas coming from Israel may not be sufficient for such a project, while Turkey, with high energy demand, aspires to become a key crossing point between producing countries and Europe.

During this period, trade between Turkey and Israel followed a distinct trajectory. Even during periods when Erdoğan used the harshest expressions, the volume of trade increased. In 2002, when the AKP came to power, Turkey’s exports to Israel were $861.4 million and imports from Israel amounted to $544.5 million. In 2022, exports reached $6.74 billion, while imports reached $2.17 billion. The two countries complement each other in trade, with Turkey mainly sending food products and steel raw materials, while importing mineral oils and fuels from Israel. A free trade agreement has been in force between the two countries since 1997.

After the Hamas attack on 7 October, early data indicated a slight decline in trade. However, the cancellation of agreements or the imposition of sanctions are not on the agenda. Moreover, the management of international trade by Erdoğan’s entourage is not limited to relations with Israel.

Erdoğan often uses foreign policy as a tool for domestic policy. For example, he recently reconciled, as if nothing had happened, with the United Arab Emirates, which he had clearly designated as the financiers of the attempted coup d’état of 15 July 2016. After openly accusing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the wake of the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a consular building in Turkey in 2018, he embraced him as if nothing had happened. Although the genocide in Gaza is on an unrivalled level compared to previous incidents, it is unlikely that Erdoğan, who is seeking to borrow from all corners of the world, will radically cut off relations with Israel.

Relations between Turkey and Russia also appear to be contradictory. Despite frequent confrontations between Turkey and Russia in Syria, the Middle East, the Caucasus and the Black Sea, the mutual dependence between the two countries seems to be growing beyond the personal closeness between Erdoğan and Putin. During the Russia-Ukraine war, Turkey supplied SİHA drones to Ukraine at the beginning of the conflict, while continuing its efforts to circumvent sanctions against Russia. While discussions are taking place about granting privileges for the construction of new nuclear reactors in Russia, Turkey is considering becoming a new energy hub for Russia. What can you say about this relationship?

The only channel that could break Russia’s isolation in the west following its invasion of Ukraine was Turkey. Indeed, with the exception of China, Turkey has been the most significant country to circumvent sanctions imposed on Russia. The relationship between Erdoğan and Putin, whom Erdoğan calls his friend in the context of the usual personalization of Turkish foreign policy, is quite zigzagging. After the downing of a Russian bomber on the Syrian border in November 2015, relations reached a critical point. Erdoğan sent a letter of apology to Russia and accused the coup plotters of shooting down the plane.

Thus, when the rapprochement that had begun in the 2000s was suddenly confronted with this crisis, it could be expected that Ankara would move closer to the West. But relations have accelerated with the controversial purchase of S-400 air defence systems, despite the growing tension with NATO. Even the supply of SİHA drones to Ukraine has not tarnished these relations.

The acquisition of the S-400 air defence system from Russia has led to the exclusion of Turkey from the production process of the F-35 aircraft, in which it participates, and even to the non-delivery of the aircraft, despite the fact that they were paid for to the tune of $1.5 billion. It has also hampered the supply of spare parts for F-16 aircraft. These missiles, which were inactive, represented a concession to Russia. Even the joint war with Azerbaijan against Armenia, ignoring the Russian forces installed in Karabakh in the Caucasus, has not altered relations. Turkey, by facilitating the access of Ukrainian wheat to the world market, is protecting the interests of both sides by also helping to lift the Russian embargo.

Turkey’s extradition of Ukrainians considered by Russia to be war criminals has certainly created unease, but in the end, it has not gone beyond a tension instrumentalized for domestic political purposes for two mutually dependent leaders. When the invasion of Ukraine began, Turkey was the scene of a significant influx of Russians. Events such as Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s NATO membership after leaving it in abeyance are also no longer essential.

In Turkey-Russia relations, the most critical issue is the future of Syria. Ankara tried to topple Assad by using a mercenary force such as the Syrian National Army, even after the US abandoned that goal. However, as Ankara did not react in any way to the emergence of Islamic State (ISIS) in the region, the United States cooperated with YPG-PYD forces in Syria. [1] Thus, Erdoğan found himself confronted with an unforeseen “Kurdish formation.” During negotiations with the PKK in Turkey, Erdoğan established relations with representatives of the PYD in Syria. However, in 2015, he ended these negotiations and attacked, declaring the PYD as an enemy. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has formed a well-equipped force of 50,000 people, including mostly YPG-PYD Kurds, but also partially Arabs, to fight ISIS.

While Turkey has sought to take control of a 30-kilometer-deep area along the border in Syria to push back the Kurds, it has only succeeded in opening two pockets across the border. Due to Russia’s control of the airspace, these operations took place with Moscow’s approval.
Putin’s intention to turn Turkey into a natural gas hub is especially important to Erdoğan. If the gas sent by the Turkish Stream is transmitted to third countries, Turkey will enjoy a significant advantage. On the other hand, Ankara has made a commitment to Moscow on nuclear energy. The commissioning of the first reactor at the Akkuyu nuclear power plant is expected. On the other hand, Turkey has adopted different positions from Russia in Libya, Africa and the Mediterranean.

Although the goal of achieving a trade volume of $100 billion over the past decade has not been fully met, it has surpassed $60 billion. Nevertheless, the centre of gravity of economic relations between Turkey and Russia remains energy. After the 2016 coup attempt, Erdoğan, who did not find the support he sought from the West, was immediately supported by Putin, which was important to AKP voters. At the same time, by controlling the airspace in northern Syria, Russia has opened a loophole allowing Erdoğan to conduct cross-border operations. Russia’s presence in Syria is seen as more palatable to the United States, which supports the Syrian Democratic Forces, including the Kurds.

The relationship between Turkey and Russia is, in a way, a kind of blackmail against the West. Turkey, which is a “dialogue partner” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, has at times threatened to become a full-fledged member. [2]

At the moment, with the occupation of Ukraine, Turkey’s dependence on Russia has increased, and Erdoğan is more relaxed compared to 2016. However, relations with Russia or Israel are negligible compared to relations with European capital. Nevertheless, from the point of view of areas of influence, relations with Russia are more attractive.

Tensions between Turkey and the West, particularly with the United States, persist. What are the issues of contradiction here and what developments do you foresee in the near future?

The justification for Turkey’s dependence on NATO during the Cold War is no longer valid. But Turkey must consider the place of the United States as a world power. However, the emergence of new areas of influence and trade routes has rendered the old dependency relationship obsolete. The conflict between the United States and China has created new uncertainties. The position of the United States vis-à-vis Russia or Iran does not correspond to Turkey’s interests. The competition between the United States and China concerns not only the Far East, but also the Middle East, where China is now present. In March 2023, talks between the two enemy powers in the region, Iran and Saudi Arabia, were held under the mediation of China. The U.S. could not accomplish such a thing, it is weakened in the Middle East and does not have a credible military force.

The character of the political regime in Turkey is not a problem for Europe or, of course, for the United States. However, due to the unconventional way in which Erdoğan is leading the game, he seems an unreliable interlocutor. One day Erdoğan can talk about joining the EU, the next day he can hold a referendum to reject it, he can accept the death penalty, slow down the functioning of NATO and flirt with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. However, the intensity of economic and political relations with the West prevents him from acting completely autonomously. No one is talking about leaving NATO. In fact, if things continue like this, even if NATO cannot exclude Turkey from membership, it could reduce its influence.

Since we cannot separate foreign policy from domestic policy, Erdoğan will have to deal with domestic issues, especially economic and social problems, in the coming years. The absence of rules, the refusal to submit to any rules on the part of Erdoğan, is the fundamental characteristic of the regime. From justice to foreign policy, from social policies to rights, the total absence of rules is obvious. Turkey’s economy hadn’t been this far removed from foreign investment in a very long time. In a country where Erdoğan decides the interest rate, even the inflation rate, and who will go to jail, no one invests. As a result, the president’s scope for manoeuvre is becoming increasingly restricted.

All these developments have sparked debates about Turkey’s place in the international system. Some interpret this as an independent foreign policy, others as a shift in the axis (detaching from NATO, Eurasianism), and for some, it is interpreted as an underlying imperialist expansion. What do you think?

While even F-16 spare parts were not supplied to Turkey, supplying F-35s to Greece and establishing U.S. bases near the border meant encirclement for Turkey, which was taking initiatives in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Of course, the United States had thus created a Black Sea route against Russia before the war in Ukraine, but Turkey was excluded. Like when the U.S., seeing Turkey as an unreliable ally in Syria, formed an alliance with local Kurdish and Arab forces there.

There is an undeniable fact: Turkey is the most militarily and economically powerful country in the region. The Turkish army maintains troops in thirteen countries. The imperial past and imperialist aims such as pan-Turkism brought the old spheres of influence back to the agenda after the pressure from the USSR had disappeared. Perceived as “an ideological mixture of Islamism, Turkish nationalism and Ottoman imperialism,” neo-Ottomanism has gained legitimacy. In parallel with the strengthening of the far right in domestic politics, an expansionist tendency legitimized by the discourse of “survival” is also intensifying in foreign policy. Just a decade ago, Erdoğan declared that “Kosovo is Turkey and Turkey is Kosovo,” showing the breadth of spheres of influence. Today, even a simple passer-by in the street – subjected to a media bludgeon almost totally dominated by the regime – can claim that Iraq’s Mosul province is in fact Turkey’s natural border.

After the start of the Arab Spring, Erdoğan, by becoming the godfather of the Muslim Brotherhood, was giving advice to Morsi in Egypt and also recommending that Assad integrate the Muslim Brotherhood into power. And, when his advice didn’t come to fruition, he began dreaming of sending his troops all the way to Damascus. But his plan to turn Turkey into a regional power, launched in 2011, has completely collapsed. The dream of dominion over the seas, the “blue homeland” has been shipwrecked. The “precious solitude” has given way to hugs with those who were once labelled murderers.

The desirability of becoming a sub-imperialist power could perhaps have been discussed under other circumstances. However, the opportunity to become a soft power has long since been missed.

Since 2010, Turkey has adopted a proactive policy, independent of the alliances to which it belongs, and therefore a policy distant from the West, even hostile. It explores the possibilities of being a power in a region stretching from the Balkans (where one million people speak Turkish and one-fifth of the Turkish population is of Balkan origin) to the Caucasus, from the Middle East to Africa. Erdoğan openly declared in 2013: “If you claim to be a great power, you must be present in every corner of the world.” In fact, when the USSR collapsed, thus eliminating the motive of Turkey’s dependence on the United States, the Prime Minister at the time, Süleyman Demirel, also raised the possibility of a sphere of influence stretching from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China.

The foreign policy that former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu called “zero problems with neighbours”" quickly produced opposite results. In 2013, İbrahim Kalın, one of Erdoğan’s closest aides at the time, summed up Turkey’s foreign policy by calling it “precious solitude.” Among other things, Turkey, despite not being a party to international maritime law, has launched a show of force in the Mediterranean Sea by referring to the notion of Mavi Vatan (Blue Homeland) for maritime areas of jurisdiction, thus creating a general atmosphere of hard power.

While reforms to improve relations with the EU were avoided, the attempt to portray himself as the mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world after the overthrow of Morsi in Egypt was unsuccessful. The dreams of co-presidency attributed to Turkey and of course to Erdoğan, since the Bush-era Greater Middle East projects, have been set aside, but Erdoğan’s ambition to become a world leader has not been extinguished.

“Turkey has the ambitions of a Rolls Royce and the resources of a Rover,” a U.S. ambassador said of Turkey. On the one hand, there is an exaggerated belief in the power and capabilities of the regime, but this is accompanied by a constant retreat from the point of view of objectives. The question of the “survival” of the homeland, which Erdoğan waves as a shield in domestic politics, is also used in international politics to describe a state as a “besieged country,” thus seeking to legitimize its aggressiveness. But Erdoğan’s cards are considerably weaker than they were a decade ago.


[1] The People’s Protection Units (Kurdish: Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, abbreviated to YPG) are the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria. They were formed in 2011 during the Syrian civil war.

[2] The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is one of a number of political and economic intergovernmental organisations active in Asia. The successor to the "Shanghai Group", it was established in 2001 by China, Russia and four Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It was extended to India and Pakistan in 2016, then to Iran in 2021.